Should the Philadelphia Free Library eliminate its fines and fees for overdue materials? The argument -most recently put forth by Councilwoman Cherelle Parker — is that fines are regressive and can not only be a burden to low income people, but discourage them from using the library. Parker was prompted to raise the issue after Chicago decided to drop their library fines in September; it’s the largest city to participate in a trend growing in libraries across the country. She is scheduling a hearing for next month to address the issue. This notion is not new to the Philadelphia Library, whose management has been discussing the possibility for a while, especially after eliminating its fines for children six years ago.
The elimination would be up to the library, since City Council doesn’t have the authority to do it, but council does approve the library’s budget. Fines represent a small part of the library’s $49 million budget.
The debate is likely to center on whether or not this any way to teach responsibility to people, by forgiving their library debts. Based on history, we can imagine the conversation will include those who use the words “coddling” and “hand outs.”
But consider this: This is no time in history to be discouraging anyone from seeking out facts, knowledge or transport from accessing books and other materials from the library. Many libraries who have eliminated fines do get a large share of the overdue materials back. Besides, it’s not as if people can just take whatever materials they want with no expectation of returning them; they won’t be able to borrow materials if they have outstanding items. In other words, they’re on the hook for the book, just not the fines.
This is one where the impact of the punishment – keeping people from going to the library and accessing its riches – exceeds the crime.